Book Review: How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman

I’m rather fond of Bart Ehrman. I have often found him to be a great communicator, hugely knowledgeable and yet wields his learning with gentleness so as to not alienate people needlessly. I first heard of this book when he took part in a debate (no doubt as part of a promotion) on Unbelievable, the Saturday afternoon apologetics programme on Premier Radio. His foil in that argument was Simon Gathercole who was one of several writers who had contributed to a riposte to Ehrman’s latest work (and which I shall be reading and reviewing in a month or two’s time).

As the title implies, this is a look at Jesus and how he came to be regarded as God. While Ehrman is no longer a christian, he retains his key interest in the origins of christianity. His opening thesis is that that while theologians tend to focus on questions of incarnation (i.e. how God became human) it is less frequently asked how Jesus came to be regarded as God. The obvious answer (that he was seen as God because he was God) is discounted as too simplistic and reliant on an uncritical reading of the gospels. His overall thesis is that Jesus wasn’t thought of as God in his lifetime and that a high christology only developed later on. Incorporating Jesus as the 2nd member of the Trinity was a much later development still. First, though, he lays out his approach for tackling the problem at hand.

He begins with a nicely deceptive piece of writing where he describes a charismatic figure from the backwaters of the Middle East, who had a group of followers who came to think of him as a god.

What he does, and this is what makes him such a brilliant writer, is that he makes some general points that makes the reader think. As I read from a christian perspective it is inevitable that some of his points are dissonant with my current understanding. Many of these objections are then addressed in a very short space of time.

Much of the argument over what is early and what is late in terms of theological development hinges on an assumption of a late authorship of the gospels. Unsurprisingly, John is portrayed as the last of the gospels to be written, though Ehrman puts the date of all four as after 70 CE. He references one of his earlier works in support of this claim, but no further backup is given. It’s an assumption that stands in stark contrast to, say, F.F. Bruce who advocated an earlier date of composition.

Clearly, the earlier the date, the less room there is for an elongated period of oral history. The shorter that period, the less time there is for corruption and therefore the more likely it is that the gospels are a faithful record of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. When it comes to oral history, though, Ehrman seems unreasonably dismissive. In what is a clear sideswipe at Kenneth Bailey, he states, “Some people today claim that cultures rooted in oral tradition are far more careful to make certain that traditions that are told and retold are not changed significantly. This turns out to be a modern myth, however.” It seems to be a pretty obvious reference to Bailey’s Informal Controlled Oral History and the Synoptic Tradition, yet Ehrman isn’t even willing to grant Bailey a namecheck, let alone any engagement with the subject.

One of the most irritating features of the book, though, is Ehrman’s frequent use of the “many scholars” fallacy“. Throughout the book, he cites “scholars” who either support his view or whose work support a particular aspect of the argument he’s making. Frequently, though, they are not named or sufficiently well referenced, so it is impossible to follow up to make further enquiry. As a result, even the reader who comes to this work in anticipation of Ehrman’s critical analysis will be left frustrated there is insufficient support at crucial stages of the argument and therefore the force of the point being made is not as well backed up as Ehrman would like his readers to think.

As one would expect of a good scholar, he traces his steps carefully. He begins the study by looking at beliefs in gods who became human and humans descended from gods. The examples cited all came from the Roman and Greek worlds. He also postulates different levels of divinity, whereby a human exalted to the form a deity was only of a low form of a deity, not necessarily to the same level as, say Apollo.

Following the outline of the book, he then draws parallels with the above to the Jewish world (making much hay from the Nephilim) to try to say that a human being elevated to the status of God was not at all against the grain of mainstream monotheism. Crucial to Ehrman’s view is an idiosyncratic usage of the word ‘divine’. While in christianity and Judaism, this is an adjective to mean ‘of God’, Ehrman takes it to mean ‘heavenly’. The distinction soon becomes apparent when, having noted the various different expressions of divinity in the Greek and Roman worlds, he tries to construe Judaism as a polytheistic religion. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, most notably from Francesca Stavrakapoulo, but which seems to be reliant on a particular eisegetical way of reading a few cherry-picked passages and ignoring the whole sweep of monotheistic Judaism. In short, it is a category mistake.

From here, he moves onto a couple of chapters on the resurrection. Those who know me know that this is an area of particular interest as it’s the criteria upon which I believe christianity rests. Ehrman’s approach is somewhat novel. First of all, one has to note that Ehrman stops short of denying the resurrection. That’s not his aim. Rather, his idea is that there is insufficient evidence to be confident in its historicity. But he does think that the disciples and early church genuinely thought that Jesus was raised from the dead. So he doesn’t endorse the ‘stolen body’ hypothesis. In an interesting turn, he notes that many attempts to debunk the historicity of the resurrection have failed so he takes a different approach. Going back to the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (interpreted as a creedal formulation), he takes his critique not to the idea that Jesus died, nor that he was raised, but to the idea that he was buried. He cites, without endorsing, the view of John Dominic Crossan that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs. Instead, he puts forward several ideas, without being too firm on any of them. Just to cite one, he says it’s possible that Jesus’ body was thrown into a communal grave with a lot of other criminals.

The rest of the book is then spent charting how views of Jesus emerged over the life of the early church. He does come to express that there was an early high christology, as expressed in the writings of Paul. But he stops short of saying that was an expression of something that had already been understood. In other words, any evidence from the early church, whether that be in Paul’s writings or in the gospels, which indicate that Jesus was God are thought to be later interpretations. Yet Ehrman seems unaware that his approach is wholly dependent on confirmation bias. If one assumes that Jesus was not thought of as God in his lifetime, then any expression must have been invented. He discounts the other two possibilities: 1) it was a later realisation (epistemological) of an extant fact (ontological) or 2) that Jesus was actually thought of as being God, and understood himself to be such, during his lifetime.

The reason I’ve spent some time on the critiques is not to be mean to Ehrman. No, this is one of the instances where I have attempted to review in the same style that the book is written in. So it is something of an homage. So while I think there are gaps in argument, it is right to point them out just as Ehrman sees fit to point out holes in the arguments of christian orthodoxy. It is a well-researched, and brilliantly written book. Yes, there are flaws in the methodology, but it is my view that christianity needs voices like Ehrman who take a close look at the subject matter, ask probing questions and can communicate to a wide audience.

I intend to follow up with the response book, How God Became Jesus, so it will be interesting to see what aspects of my critique may be picked up (and probably articulated much more clearly) and what aspects I may have overlooked. For now, though, I do heartily recommend you read some of Ehrman’s work if you’ve not already done so.

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2 responses to “Book Review: How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman

  1. Just a thought but does belief in the divinity of Jesus rest on this being the explicit belief of the first disciples, or even the first generations of Christians? Is there an assumption in the book that theological development = greater untruthfulness? If so shouldn’t this be the real challenge to Ehrman? It seems to me that the idea of the Incarnation certainly grew over time; the question is whether it is true and illuminates the real God, and if it is I see no reason why such an astounding truth should come all at once. The question seems more existential to me: what does Christ do to my experience of and ideas about God, and what do I need to say about him as a result? The answer does not seem to me to rest (very much) on the sifting of historical data.

    • Ehrman’s a bit slippery about this. It’s a bit of a nod-and-a-wink affair regarding (what I see as) the false dichotomy between the “Jesus of history” and the “Jesus of faith”. Essentially, the argument is that if expressions of belief in Jesus being one and the same as God were articulated later, then the “Jesus of history” was not regarded as God during his time on earth and is therefore a different figure from the “Jesus of faith”. Yet he stops of short of stating that Jesus wasn’t God. So while he is not explicit in, as you put it, ‘theological development = greater untruthfulness’ it can be read between the lines.